Politics & Policy


Was is death or renewal in Athens?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War has recently been released by Random House. This week National Review Online will be excerpting Chapter 10 of the book. Below is the first part. Check back tomorrow for part two and click on Amazon to purchase A War Like No Other here.

Was Athens–or Greece itself–destroyed by the war? An entire industry of classical scholarship once argued for postwar Hellenic “decline,” and the subsequent tide of fourth-century poverty, social unrest, and class struggle as arising after the Peloponnesian War. Victorians, in turn, felt the loss was more a “what might have been,” a conflict that had ended not just the idea of Athens but “the glory that was Greece” itself and the Hellenic civilizing influence in the wider Mediterranean.

Bernard Henderson, for example, ended his military history of the Peloponnesian War with the melancholy reflection that the romance of Greek history “for a half-century illumined the Imperial Democracy of Athens and the people’s leaders. Athens falls, and the gleam lights on her no more. The City, for all Demosthenes’ fiery if mistaken eloquence, lies henceforward in perpetual shadow.” Alfred Zimmern, a utopian who was deeply involved in the work of the League of Nations, summed up best the Victorian view that the war had been the tragic divide of ancient, and indeed world, history.

For a wonderful half-century, the richest and happiest period in the recorded history of any single community, Politics and Morality, the deepest and strongest forces of national and of individual life, had moved forward hand in hand towards a complete ideal, the perfect citizen in the perfect state. All the high things in human life seemed to lie along that road: “Freedom, Law, and Progress”; Truth and Beauty; Knowledge and Virtue; Humanity and Religion. Now the gods had put them asunder.

In the short term, perhaps such bleak assessments rang true. Soon after the fighting stopped in autumn 405, democracy, saddled as it was with the humiliation of military defeat and the loss of thousands of unfortunate supporters who had gone down in the Aegean during the nearly decade-long Ionian War, began to unwind. After the formal capitulation of spring 404, it was replaced by a narrow and mean-spirited oligarchy (the Thirty Tyrants), as Athens’ old tributary subjects abroad were “liberated” and left to their own devices. Aegospotami marks the of?cial end of direct Athenian-Spartan hostilities, yet the war was not formally concluded until a besieged Athens gave up the democracy in spring 404.

In place of an enlightened democratic hegemony, an incompetent Spartan protectorate clumsily tried to impose on Athens’ former subjects oligarchies that left the most vulnerable states in Asia Minor open to either direct or insidious Persian suzerainty. In peace, the conquering Lysander quickly proved to be a different sort of statesman from Pericles, an oligarchic rather than a democratic imperialist whose brutality was not mitigated by any sense of majesty.

After a brief civil war and the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, by late 403 democratic government was ?rmly once more in control at Athens, in glorious fashion. It would provide another six decades of relative tranquillity and stability, if not a dangerous laxity, before the onslaught of Philip of Macedon in the 340s. A second Athenian maritime league, without the odious tribute or forced confiscations of land, was in place in 378, within thirty years of the war’s end. The Aegean was to be patrolled by yet another fleet of some 300 active triremes, and reminiscent more of the balanced Delian League than the old exploitative empire. Athenian citizens were even now paid to attend the assembly, perhaps because so many of the urban poor who had once routinely done so had been killed off in the sea battles of the Ionian War.

Some scholars even believe that the fourth-century Athenian fleet at times grew larger than that of the fifth. The walls that Lysander had once pulled down to the music of flute players were rebuilt within eleven years, along with a growing line of refitted Attic border forts, which allowed the city more strategic flexibility and in theory the chance to stop enemies before they reached the richer cropland around the city. Since the real wartime damage to Attic agriculture had been confined to annual losses of grain and an inability to reach fields, almost immediately after the war agrarians were back at work in their vineyards and orchards. Once Athens had capitulated and the six-month siege was lifted in late spring 404, there was surprisingly little postwar famine, nor a massive pool of ruined Attic farmers eager to list abroad as mercenary hoplites.

In the troubled world after the war, the old imperial Athens did not look so bad after all. In comparison, the real threat of Persia reappeared, Sparta proved cruel, and there was less imperial largess for plays and majestic temples. Despite Mytilene, Melos, and Sicily, it remains one of the great controversies of history whether, in fact, the old Athenian empire that Sparta destroyed really was a coercive hegemony that extorted money and trampled on local autonomy. Or was Pericles’ Athens a cultural engine for Greece that channeled capital into the arts even as it served as an aegis for the poor and dispossessed throughout the Aegean?

For their own part, Sparta and Athens soon enjoyed a reconciliation based on their mutual suspicion of the growing power of Thebes and its resurgent and reunited Boeotian Confederacy. Twenty years after the Peloponnesian War’s conclusion had the ruin and genocide of the past merely become a bad dream? In such a revisionist view, did Thucydides (the supposed determinist, who may well have lived into the early 390s) cease his history in medias res in 411 for reasons other than illness or an untimely death? Perhaps as he toiled in the 390s to finish up his grand tale of Athenian folly and its inevitable punishment and decline, the resurrected democracy instead right before his eyes arose from the ashes of war and oligarchy, calling into question many of the historian’s sweeping pessimistic judgments forged during his wartime exile.

Xenophon, whose narrative takes up at 411, seems to have been one of the few contemporary historians who accepted Thucydides’ notion of a twenty-seven-year-long war beginning in 431 and ending in 405 with the defeat at Aegospotami, followed by the capitulation of the city in 404. Other observers, like the historians Theopompus and Cratippus, felt that the Peloponnesian War did not really end until 394, a thirty-eight-year war in all. In this view, hostilities actually ceased when the Spartan fleet was defeated by Athens at the sea battle at Cnidus (394). Then its expeditionary army was forced home to Sparta from Ionia to meet a new rising threat from Thebes, while the Long Walls of Athens were rebuilt, thereby ending once and for all the saga of the old ?fth-century bipolar world of Athenian and Spartan hegemony.

The histories of Theopompus and Cratippus are lost except for a few fragments. Yet they might have reflected a generally held view that Athens did not lose the “Peloponnesian War” in 405-404 as much as suffer a two-year set-back–not unlike the Sicilian disaster–before pressing ahead to ?nd rough parity and permanent peace with Sparta somewhere around 394.

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.


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